At the outset of this answer one important generalization should be made which is that, at all times and in all places the Greek world relied on some form (or forms) of dependent labor to meet its ends, both public and private. This means that dependent labor was essential, in a significant measure, if the requirements of agriculture, trade, manufacture, public works and war production were to be fulfilled. Here, dependent labor means the work performed under compulsions other than those of kinship or communal obligations.
Another unique feature of the Greek slavery was that with the rarest of exceptions, there were always substantial numbers of free men engaged in productive labor. This means primarily not free hired labor but free men working in their own land, shops or homes. The importance of slavery in Greece can be understood by evaluating how the Greeks always took slavery for granted as one of the facts of human existence which is quite evident for anyone who has read their literature.
In the poems which are attributed to an elusive character called ‘Homer’ (between 900-700 BC) it is assumed, and correctly so, that captive women will be taken home as slaves and that occasional male slaves will also be on hand. However, after around 800 BC we see a change in the nature of Greek poems. Compared to the epic poems by Homer the poems written between 900 BC to 800 BC by poets like Archilocus and Hesoid mainly talked about the present everyday life of peasants. Hesoid in his “Works and Days” tells his brother how to properly use slaves, the fact that slaves will be available is simply assumed.
In the post-800 BC period which is classified as the Archaic period we see tensions growing in the Greek society because of certain factors which are: The population of the region increases during this time creating a problem of scarcity of resources. Land tenure and debt-laws invariably favored a small elite known as the ‘Eupatridae’. Hence, starting the never ending struggle between the many poor and the few elite. The debt-bonded slaves of the eupatridae constituted the necessary but involuntary labor forces (Finley, 1959).
New military formation (called ‘hoplite’) needed large numbers of armed infantry which was usually conscripted from well-off families outside the aristocracy as the soldiers had to pay themselves for their weapons and armors. This led to a widespread resentment *among the families from which hoplites were forcibly recruited. As the tensions reached their height around 600 BC the Greek poleis started a campaign of organized migration of people into new areas (Black Sea, North Africa, Syria etc. ) to gather resources for dealing with the internal crisis. However, this migration should not be considered colonization.
The migrants used to setup agrarian settlements, interact and trade with the natives to collect the much needed resources. As measures against these internal tensions poleis like Athens and Sparta took rather different routes. While Sparta subjugated its neighboring poleis and enslaving their population, Athens made a rather innovative choice. In 594 BC the people of Athens elected Solon as the magistrate of the polis and the reforms introduced by Solon are known as the ‘Solonic code’. The most distinct feature of the Solonic code was its source of authority, which was the community of Athens and not their pantheon.
The reforms proposed in the Solonic code were: Dividing the community/city into four economic classes based on the agricultural produce of the households. The four divisions (from highest to lowest) are- the ‘Pentakosimedimnoi’ (financed public services and religious functions), the ‘Hippeis’ (provided horses and armor for warfare), the ‘Zengitai’ (fought in the army while providing their own armor) and the ‘Thetes’ (rowed the naval ships and also got paid). Eupatridae were replaces and the exclusive hereditary rights were broken. Enslavement of Athenians from debt was abolished.
In a court or assembly, a third party could seek justice on behalf of someone. Appeals could be made to a popular tribunal. The Solonic code was an important milestone in the process of the rise of the Greek save system. As the Solonic code abolished the debt-bonded enslavement of Athenians, there was an immediate problem facing the people i. e. the problem of labor. This problem created the need for an alternate source of labor and enslaving the “barbarians” seemed a convenient choice for the sophisticated Greeks. There were two main sources of supply of slaves. One was captives, the victims of war and sometimes piracy.
One of the few generalizations about the ancient world to which there is no exception is this, that the victorious power had the right over the persons and the property of the vanquished. This right was not exercised in its full extent but was used often enough, and on a large scale, to throw a continuous and numerous supplies of men, women and children on to the slave market. Another important milestone in the establishment of slavery and democracy in Greece was the introduction of reforms proposed by Kleisthenis which later came to be known as ‘Kleisthenic reforms’.
He divided the population in to ‘demes’ which were now the basic social units of the society and made the members of the demes responsible for each other. He also divided the region into ten tribes who were also given the trittyes along with the ten phylai. After the introduction of the reforms the jury courts were chosen from among the assembly and the principle of ‘Isonomia’ was also introduced according to which every adult male member had a voice/vote in the council.
This period was followed by the rule of Periclies under whom Athenian democracy reaches its height and from his rule onwards, important merchants and craftsmen also start entering the assembly. Even after all these reforms the demand for land redistribution was not met and growth in the notion of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ also implied growth in the freedom to enslave others (outsiders). I feel it is rightly justified by Finley when he states that, “One aspect of Greek history, is the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery. ” The basic economic activity in the region was agriculture.
An overwhelming majority of the Greek population had its main wealth in the land. The majority was smallholders and some proportion of them owned a slave, or even two, but it is hard to determine the exact proportion. On the lands of the large landholders, however, the work was done by dependent labor as a rule (even when allowance is made for tenancy). In some areas it took the form of helotage (as in Sparta), and in the archaic period, of debt-bondage, but generally the form was outright slavery. The situation of mining in Athens was decisively one-sided.
There were free men, in Athens for example, who leased such small mining concessions that they were able to work them alone. However, the moment additional labor was introduced; it seems normally to have been a slave. The largest individual holdings of slaves in Athens were workers in mines. It has been suggested, indeed, that at one point there may have been as many as thirty thousand slaves at work in Athenian silver mines and processing mills. Manufacture was like agriculture in that the choice was between the independent craftsman working alone or with his family members and the owner of slaves.
The proportion of operations employing slaves, as against the independent self-employed craftsmen, was probably greater than in agriculture and in this respect more like mining. In commerce and banking, subordinates were invariably slaves. In the domestic field, finally, we can take it as a rule that any free man, who possibly could afford one, owned a slave attendant and also a woman slave for household chores. Slaves were ever present in the crucial areas on work throughout Greek history.
The situation of slavery in Athens, as we have seen above, was quite different than the situation in Sparta, who when in time of crisis, went to war and subjugated and establish control over Laconia and Messenia to get agricultural land and slaves. Lysurgus, who was the law-giver of Sparta, introduced the notion of ‘Helotage’. The captured land was redistributed to the spartiates and enslaved the populations of the two territories who were now called ‘Helots’. ‘Perioikoi’ was another category of slaves captured from these lands who were better off than helots but were still subordinated.
There were a few differences between the helots and the Athenian slaves like- the helots had to work on their own land and in their own community therefore there could maintain their kinship ties. The helots were owned by the state unlike the Athenian slaves. The ratio of free men in Sparta to that of the slaves was very less (less than 1:1). If we think of the ancient Greek society as made up of a spectrum of statuses (Finley, 1959), with the free citizen at one end and the slave at the other, we have already discovered: the slave, the helot, the debt-bondsman, the manumitted slave and the freedman.
Slavery was the most flexible of the forms, adaptable to all kinds and levels of activity, whereas helotage and the rest are best suited to agriculture, pasturage and household service, much less so to manufacture and trade. However, Ste Croix has criticized this argument of Finley by saying that, “One needs to look at the fact of exploitation. ” In conclusion to this discussion we can quote Perry Anderson’s statement that, “It was in the Greek city state where slavery was rendered absolute in form and dominant in extent. Thereby, transforming it from an ancillary facility to a systematic mode of production. ” ____________________